Obama's Nobel Prize money: education groups to get most of it

Of the 10 charities receiving part of Obama's $1.4 million Nobel Prize award, six directly support higher education for student groups that are traditionally underserved.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
Nobel Prize: President Barack Obama looks at the Nobel Peace Prize medal at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo, Norway, Dec. 10, 2009.

President Obama is putting his prize money where his mouth is.

He has preached that by 2020, the United States should lead the world in the portion of citizens earning college degrees. On Thursday, he donated his $1.4 million Nobel Peace Prize award to 10 charities, six of which directly support higher education for traditionally underserved groups.

Leaders of several of the groups say the gifts were a surprise and a tremendous boost in their work to help students stay on a path to a college degree.

Students and teachers cried with delight as soon as they heard news of the donation to College Summit, says J.B. Schramm, founder and CEO of the Washington-based group. It plans to divvy up the $125,000 gift among the 12 states where it has 170 partner high schools.

Teens at these schools are identified as peer leaders and then attend summer workshops that help them apply for college and financial aid. They're often the first in their family to consider college, and they learn how to share what they’ve gained with fellow high-schoolers.

“What our students heard is that the president is saying, you’re not just a vessel to get education poured into you; you can drive the change in your own community,” Mr. Schramm says.

The American Indian College Fund expects to use its $125,000 gift to fund scholarships for about 125 students attending tribal colleges. That’s a small portion of the 6,000 scholarships it usually gives each year, but the attention that comes with the presidential gift is likely to help the group raise extra money. Donations have been down about 10 to 20 percent.

American Indians “are almost always left out” of discussions about minorities in higher education, says Richard Williams, CEO of the Denver nonprofit. “That we were included this time is absolutely amazing.”

Thirty-three tribal colleges educate about 15 percent of all American Indians in college. “Indian people are beginning to take control of their own destiny ... and the tribal college movement is critical to empowering Indian people to do that,” Mr. Williams says.

Groups that focus on minority and low-income students’ success in higher education aren’t pausing to celebrate for too long: They urge continued attention to financial and other barriers.

“We applaud President Obama’s unprecedented personal commitment to the college-access agenda.... However, we hope [it] will be exemplified in his administration’s future policies toward proven federal education programs,” says Chandra Taylor Smith, director of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education in Washington. “The private sector and state governments, alone, cannot ensure that the nation achieves Obama’s goal of increasing college enrollment and regaining our competitive edge in the global economy.”

Next week, a summit will bring together representatives from colleges, the US Department of Education, and nonprofits, including some of the prize-money beneficiaries. They will gather at Pine Manor College in the Boston area to discuss ways to better “bridge the gap between underserved students and the college degree,” says Pine Manor President Gloria Nemerowicz.

As part of Obama's donations, these six groups each received $125,000: College Summit, the American Indian College Fund, the Appalachian Leadership and Education Foundation, the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, the Posse Foundation, and the United Negro College Fund. The other beneficiaries: Africare ($100,000); the Central Asia Institute, which supports education, especially for girls, in Pakistan and Afghanistan ($100,000); the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund ($200,000); and Fisher House, which houses families of veterans who are in hospitals ($250,000).

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